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Gisela McKay

President and Co-Founder, pixcode


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How do smart people "find their level" in conversation?

I am interested in identifying how smart people (gifted/exceptional or whatever word we’re using this week) people recognize each other.

I have observed that they can identify each other relatively quickly, and even broadly determine where they sit relative to each other while average or “less smart” people can usually identify that they are dealing with “smart” people but not necessarily the extent to which they are smart.

Some things I have observed that are “tells” of being “quicker”:

1. A willingness to leave the conversational basics behind and explore deeper into the subject (and if the person they are conversing with does not follow, drop back to the level the other can cope with).
2. Anchoring - taking the current topic of conversation and looking for a frame of reference they are already familiar with to understand it better.
3. Quips and parallel commentary - fleeting comments that are not meant to derail the main thrust of the conversation.

Any other keys you have observed in your experience?


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  • Aug 8 2011: It may sound funny but I have always managed to figure out other smart folks by looking into their eyes...A twinkle with a smile..kind of a hidden tagging that says 'from the same group, mate':) Has anyone else experienced this?
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      Aug 8 2011: Yes, the eyes have it! Good insight!
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      Aug 9 2011: Yes, mostly that's a good sign... but remember that they can lie as well...
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      Aug 9 2011: I like this as a concept. I, too, have definitely experienced that "Oh HO!" moment during discussions.

      I still suspect it is more than that, though, because I have been able to pick up on it on IRC, which is a purely text-based chat medium, and even during seemingly ordinary conversations.

      Edit: Actually now that I think about this some more, that twinkle is usually at the moment of realization - meaning something has given it away before that point, no?
      • Aug 9 2011: I would agree with you Gisela. I use Reuters Office Communicator (OC) & in my chats the 'twinkle' comes at a time when the other person understands (and responds) on points that one is still typing:)
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      Aug 9 2011: A number of years (decades..) ago I picked up some extra income doing intelligence testing to screen children who were being considered for a "gifted" program. After testing dozens of children over a few years and scoring the results, I noticed a pattern and could predict with some accuracy what their score might be by looking in their eyes. There was a curiosity and sense of adventure in whatever might be interesting that fits your description of "twinkle." When we were looking for a dog for my son, we looked into the eyes of the dogs at the shelter for that "twinkle" and found one who was exceptionally intelligent.
      • Aug 9 2011: Totally Bob, you said it! As a famous bollywood (India) song goes, "In your eyes there is a strange beauty"...song and the english translation of lyrics can be found here if you're curious:) http://www.lyricsmasti.com/song/4949/get_lyrics_of_Ajab-Si-Ajab-Si.html
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          Aug 10 2011: Thanks Ratul. I could not access your link. Do you have another option?
      • Aug 15 2011: I was one of those gifted kids. From long ago. Maybe not in your screening. But I believe I was the first generation of autistic kids. I believe my autism differs from the ones of today. It makes me very empathetic to anyone. Most ppl say you can't be empathetic if you yourself know it but I deny that claim. When you notice as a kid you react to things as a kid and your emotions are different than most kids. Anyway, not trying to throw the topic off. But maybe because of my particular autism as I would call it. I analyze and see things really really differently. My mom took me to get screen because of my gifts and because I was very empathetic>>>>> which I didn't notice until I was like 13. When ppl are sad or angry I'm unable to show real sad emotion of any kind. I will in fact laugh for no apparent reason. Anyway....I've derailed this topic.
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          Aug 16 2011: Conrad, It is not clear to me that you derailed the topic - this conversation potentially involves many layers and branches and I think you have raised an important point.

          Your description of autism doesn't match my understanding of that diagnosis. It sounds like you are a highly sensitive person, which in my opinion is a gift that sadly tends to work against people in this culture at this time. Many people learn to cope with these experiences by trying to inhibit the experience of emotion which we do by tensing various muscle groups and diminishing our breathing. (A build up of tension commonly leads to inappropriate laughter in highly emotional situation.)

          The concept of "emotional intelligence" doesn't make sense to me because the emotions are so different from cognition. "Sensitivity" and "Openness" are much clearer terms in my opinion. There is a parallel to this discussion in that people who are more sensitive emotionally often have a hard time being understood by those with normal sensitivity.

          In this mass culture that puts pressure on pre-adolescents to "fit in," we desperately need who see things differently. I appreciate your input.
      • Aug 17 2011: I've noticed that ppl such as myself. Are very quiet. Not because we don't have a lot to say. But as you said ppl such as myself can't express our self in this era. I've tried very hard to converse with many ppl and most I can tell within in the first 10 secs have no idea what I'm talking about. Not to be stereotypical. But I live in Atlanta and because the population is heavily black the only thing I can relate myself to them is Obama. That is not every black person. But I can for the most part almost always tell by the look in their eye that I would either have an engaging conversation or a slow simple one. I don't think the average person....doesn't have to be american. The average person does not comprehend the technology that is coming right now. And when I try to engage in a conversation about bionanotechnology or robotics or quantum mechanics. I find myself wanting to talk to anyone about it. Even if they don't know about it. My mind is a 24/7 scrolling encyclopedia. My release is posting tech vids of world changing technology on youtube so that I can at least feel like I'm sharing. But for the most part is agonizing not being able to express my intelligence and dumbing it down so that ppl can pace with me. Ppl really don't get me. I can disect a person's joke and see it different way than they intended. For example : They could have made a statement which could be look from an intelligent person as a technical joke. It happen today in class. Everyone looked at me funny. I thought it was hilarious. I've tried in the past to break them down to show them how it's funny. And they'll either look at me like "how was that funny" or either " they just don't get it" or "it would take so long to explain it that its not even funny to me anymore. I hate not being able to express myself and my views and or to share views with others.
    • Aug 10 2011: To be blunt, it doesn't sound funny, it sounds elitist. We aren't a club, and I don't necessarily revel in other "intelligent" individuals. As often as not, I find them to be odious, self righteous and terribly insecure. I have had just as many compelling conversations with poeple of average intelligence as those who are gifted.

      Although I understand the desire of the highly intelligent to be able to explore complex issues, and I too am compelled this way, our strengths are varied enough, that just because two people both have exceptional skills, certainly does not mean they will mesh well, or welcome each others input or company.

      The concept of a "twinkle and a smile" to me seems more like an acknowledgment that both are exceedingly familiar with the interior of a high school locker than mutual membership in some special club.

      However, in response to Bob, I do see how in children this could be relevant, as they tend to be far more overt and their curiosity could be visually apparent.
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        Aug 10 2011: I like the heart expressed in this comment, Jason!
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        Aug 11 2011: "As often as not, I find them to be odious, self righteous and terribly insecure." I would say that's just like the general population - i.e. that's just part of the human condition, isn't it? We're all varied with different experiences.

        For instance, I was never stuck in a locker, I was actually the cheerleading captain, and no, I never had anyone stuck in a locker. I was mean to someone who didn't deserve it once, in grade 8, and I still feel badly about that - I fundamentally don't understand why people derive pleasure from random cruelty, it's just not in my wiring, apparently. (I do understand revenge, though. I can be 'smitey'.)

        That aside, I am sitting here experiencing a fair amount of pain helping someone with something that (as far as I am concerned) should have taken 2 minutes to do, but instead I am typing away on my computer while she attempts to figure out something painfully basic.

        So yes, I prefer the company of smart people, especially in the context of work.
        • Aug 11 2011: Gisela, in all fairness, there is a difference between a person of average intelligence, and a complete idiot who can't handle the most basic tasks. I was never stuck in a locker either, I was actually a Kickboxer. I generally tried to protect people from getting shoved in lockers. However, just because someone appears to be an idiot, does not necessarily make them so.

          The random cruelty you speak of the the partitioning of alpha's and beta's. First the groups divide in their separate cliques of relative social rank, and then subdivide within themselves. It's typical behaviour as we're not nearly as far above monkeys as we'd like to believe. (Just watch the mating habits of Baboons and then go to your local disco...staggering I tell you).

          I guess my point is, that idiot you are helping right now, might absolutely OWN you at something else, and then sit there thinking "gosh, why can't this moron figure this out". So she failed to pass your judgement for what should qualify as intelligent. I'd probably fail pretty badly at a lot of things too. However, there are areas where few people in this WORLD (statistically speaking) are anywhere near me.

          That said, some people are just all around slow, however, that does not make them valueless, and frequently, I find "intelligent" poeple, so terribly overcomplicate issues (like how to identify eachother) that they miss what is more obvious and important. That strong communication on any level can yield incredible wisdom and insight, because we all have lives full of experience.

          That's not to say you shouldn't prefer the company of "smart" people, however, I would question what you define as "smart". I think a better term might be "compatibly intelligent". I know many very smart people I competely loathe, and many average people whose company I delight in.
        • Aug 11 2011: Gisela, I think if an intelligent person cannot communicate an idea or task to someone of more limited intelligence, it is more the intelligent persons problem.

          Its just a puzzle. Like all puzzles. "How can I frame this to this persons thinking style and ability?" I dont get annoyed by it, I just get challenged by it. People who are less intelligent who sense frustration on the part of the more intelligent person, (or more skilled person if its not a matter of intelligence) shut down. Their anxiety level can rise and make them even more incapable of learning what you need them to know.

          Be of good cheer, take it as a challenge, a puzzle to be solved and enjoy it. It will make it easier for you, and the person in question.
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        Aug 12 2011: (Sorry this won't let me nest this response properly.)

        I suspect your definition of 'average' may indeed be 'above average, but less than mine' (on a pure numeric IQ basis) - i.e. not actually average.

        I've observed that there is a point at which you can tell that if the person you are dealing with isn't understanding what you are saying, you simply need to change the frame of reference or make the right analogy for all the pieces to fall into place, versus repeating yourself, slower. Or, they can articulate why what you are saying isn't connecting or at least the point of contention/break-down.

        As I get older and more crotchety, I find myself actually experiencing physical pain in having to repeat myself for a third time or even just while dealing with a lack of willingness to try.

        (And I am a firm believer in multiple intelligences, so I agree that people may have areas of strengths and weakness. But having spent a couple of weeks with this particular person, it is highly unlikely that there is an area that she would dominate.)
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        Aug 12 2011: ARGH, stupid nesting limitations! This is to Alyson:

        If I didn't have other more important, and frankly far more interesting things to do, I might agree with you. But I do. And, unfortunately, I am apparently completely transparent when irritated (OK, completely transparent all the time).

        I'm a big proponent of streamlining things. I initially asked the question because I am really good at identifying who will and who will not 'work' in my sphere and am interested in the 'tells'. It usually happens so fast that slowing it down to analyze what the keys are seemed interesting to me.

        Edit: I am fully aware that both "more important" and "more interesting" are judgments I am making based on my interests and priorities. I did, however, promise to help someone with something, erroneously thinking it would take x-amount of time, not 3x.
        • Aug 12 2011: It is an interesting question, because you are right, determining the intelligence of someone generally happens so quickly that its hard to pinpoint what it is you are doing. I enjoyed the exercise.

          Best of luck to you and your trainee.
      • Aug 15 2011: Hey Jason,

        Apologies for the late reply, was quiet busy with work n formalizing on a new job that I would be taking up from September. I understand the sentiment expressed in your reply but please see my original comment in the context of the discussion topic. I guess you overunderstood the point I was making. My comment was not about how I would segregate people, judge them on the basis of my own concept of 'smart' and cherry-pick them n decide whether to converse with them or not. Who am I in the first place to do anything like that? In my opinion, smartness/ intelligence has nothing to do when it comes to having great conversations at a personal level coz the best personal conversations I've had have used the least amount of words..My comment is only limited to the context of work and to get things done especially in situations that require some quick thinking and fast actions. There are some people who just understand and act fast and identifying them is very important in fire-fighting situations. It's not about good/bad/'my-type' or 'not-my type', it's just about arresting the need of the hour!

        Hoping we agree on some of these points now:) Beyond all this, how's life n everything else?

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